Robin Williams’ Art Is His Melancholy – And Great Love

Illustration for Dante’s Purgatorio 20 by Gustave Doré  (French, 1720-1778) (Public Domain) 

Are we selling Robin Williams short? His contribution to
the arts and humanity reaches far beyond his entertainment and philanthropy. But most of all, we are selling short his true gift—the great holistic human being, in deed as in heart.

The author Susan Sontag (New York, 1933-2004)  said: Depression is melancholy minus its charms. Sadly, we lost Robin Williams (US, 1951-2014) to depression. But melancholy was a constant companion during his life because the soulless have no need of melancholia, wrote the 19th century Russian writer and philosopher, Prince Vladimir Odoevsky. Williams loved people too much, and gave generously of himself.

His films reached millions, and implicitly awakening people to ideas that are central to humanity. Although his Night at the Museum (2006) grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide, and no doubt a great entertainment, its potential importance cannot be lost on arts administrators. It was a phantasmagorical film about all the animals and exhibits coming alive at night in the American Museum of Natural History.  I don’t know how many viewers visited the museum as a result but it certainly gave the museum a great advertisement and I am sure planted some things in the minds of many. The 2009 sequel Night at the Museum 2 was set in the Smithsonian; and Christmas this year we will see Night at the Museum 3, set in the venerable British Museum in London, itself full of Egyptian treasures (mummies coming alive!!).

His Dead Poet Society (1989), another hit which inspired so many, was about an English literature teacher who was unconventional and inventive in inspiring his prep school students in staid New England in the 1950s. In one memorable scene, he was provoking, cajoling, and almost physically jolting this repressed teen, no doubt from a proper family, to the point of breakdown. The boy then came out with some beautiful lines—drama no doubt—but we get the point. The young man had been pushed to un-censor himself and to allow his own unconscious self to come out. Neurobiology today tells us that well  over 98% of our real learning and memory lies inside the unconscious parts of our body-brain!

But his very profound magical realist film, What Dreams May Come (1998), a tender tribute to love (and perhaps a gentle jab at Judgment), is a truly great artistic achievement. It is about a man who died and went to heaven but could not find his wife who had committed suicide after his death. So he ventured to hell to find her. If the visuals of heaven are magical—a flower in his hand turning into gooey, colorful paint—the landscapes of hell is pure art, invoking ancient ruins as if from Piranesi’s (Italian, 1720-1778) etchings; or from Botticelli’s (Florence, 1445-1510) illustration of the 14th century Dante’s Inferno in Divine Comedy; and etchings (See picture above) by Gustave Doré (French, 1832-1883). In Williams’s mind, reality and magic were constant companions, and never far from his angst for the human condition: Good people end up in Hell because they can’t forgive themselves. I know I can’t. But I can forgive you.

Although sometimes criticized for being too “transparent and calculating” in his films, Williams most certainly could not be faulted for his eagerness and generosity to share his knowledge—and maybe his phenomenal creativity—hoping that we can get his real point. He did more than his share to expose his vast audience to the magic of learning and fun, and most of all, the place of visual art in this process. To remember him only for his entertainment alone is to sell him short.

No one knows melancholy more than Virginia Woolf (British, 1882-1941), the author who drowned herself in the Ouse River with stones in her pockets. Perhaps she knew exactly where Williams’ melancholy came from. In A Writer’s Diary, she said (referring to a writer’s problem of being understood, I think): If one is to deal with people on a large scale and say what one thinks, how can one avoid melancholy? *

The Irish musician Bono once said, in answer to what the Irish had that made them so creative: It’s more like what they don’t have. That’s exactly the Irish melancholy, so pervasive in the writings from James Joyce to Samuel Beckett: you are forever seeking something that would never come—a humanity that is free of pain and disappointment. So what do the Irish do? Ann Moore, who wrote the best-selling trilogy (2001) on the 19th century Irish potato famine and subsequent mass emigration to America, says:

Humor and melancholy are complimentary in that the nuances of the one are greatly enhanced by the presence of the other. In Irish literature, this is represented by the characters’ opinion that life is a trial and death sure to arrive at any moment, so best get on with the party and who’s first up with a song?

Yes, who indeed! But this is the uncertainty of creativity. No one could predict how Robin Williams was going to answer your question, or respond to a situation. The director Garry Marshall recalled Williams auditioning for a part in Happy Days back in the 1970s. Williams promptly stood on his head on a chair (an advanced Yoga pose) when asked to have a seat. It was this uncertainty, this predictable unpredictability, that all of us craved from him and he was the generous giver. This from Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief of

“…when he (Williams) unleashed the full force of his talent—chasing a spark of inspiration as it hopped from neural pathway to neural pathway like a speed-demon driver changing lanes; rattling off free-associative thoughts that were sometimes connected by shared words or images or vowel sounds; pacing or racing while yammering and gesturing as if his whole being were taking dictation from his subconscious—he was reaching out to the audience and running away from something.” (My emphasis)

The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died young, and had been  fascinated by Greek tragedies, wrote: I myself, I, who, so far as it is finished, have composed this tragedy of tragedies…Where will the tragic solution come from?—Do I need to start thinking about a comic solution? (my emphasis)

Robin Williams was a great artist, visual, aural and full of poetry, tragic because he was humane. Let’s not sell him short.

NB  Greatly creative people are often prone to depression, see this post

*A Writer’s Diary:


Winston’s Black Dog and Vincent’s Left Ear – Creativity & Mental Illness  


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